China Power

China’s 3 Options for ‘Unifying’ Taiwan

Recent Features

China Power

China’s 3 Options for ‘Unifying’ Taiwan

Using Taiwanese factionalism to gain a foothold could be the most attractive option for Beijing.

China’s 3 Options for ‘Unifying’ Taiwan
Credit: China Taiwan handshake image via

Please note: this is not just a “click bait” title, but something I want to seriously consider. Just before the elections in Taiwan, I posted an entry on Weibo, inviting readers to discuss possible scenarios for unifying Taiwan and their prospects of success.

Overall, netizens offered two scenarios, or should I say suggestions, as to how mainland China could unify Taiwan in the future. Scenario one: when the values and social institutions of mainland China and Taiwan converge, unification will follow naturally, without resorting to the “one country, two systems” principle. For example, mainland China could introduce elections into its political process, just like Taiwan, and politicians in Taiwan could run for elections in the mainland. If this comes to pass, the thinking goes, Taiwan will have no reason to refuse unification.

The second scenario is simple, if brutal. If the rulers of Taiwan declare independence, Beijing would use force to unify the island.

There has long been skepticism in Taiwan as to whether Beijing would actually use its military in response to Taiwanese independence. Those who suggest Beijing could not, or wouldn’t dare, use force, argue that first, Beijing doesn’t have the military capacity. A war might trigger China’s already tense domestic problems, pushing the country over the edge. Second, Beijing is wary of the involvement of the United States and will think twice before using force.

But in my view, if Taiwan were to declare independence, or establish itself as a state through a referendum, Beijing would absolutely unify Taiwan by force. Beijing does have the military capacity to do so. As one of the strongest military powers in the world and with a population of 1.4 billion, mainland China could neutralize an island of 23 million people.

As for domestic factors, no Chinese leader would dare to hesitate to use force in the event that Taiwan declares independence. In such a scenario, not using force is more likely to invite domestic outrage and trigger unrest. Nationalism and populism are double-edged swords, and those who wield them often end up hurting themselves rather than their enemies.

Finally, the United States is no longer what it used to be. Washington might have reluctantly dispatched several aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait during the Clinton era, but the country now would not want to fight with China over Taiwan. The United States no longer has the will to do so—not to mention Taiwan’s independence is against its interests.

In view of this, a Taiwanese declaration of independence might be the fastest cataclysm to bring about unification. However, while declaring independence was former President Chen Shui-bian’s gambit, it is absolutely not an option for president-elect Tsai Ing-wen.

Both of the two Democratic Progressive Party leaders to win Taiwan’s top office harbor deep-rooted pro-independence sentiments, but Tsai is a far cry from Chen. As the only Taiwanese leader who does not have a degree from the United States, Chen was at heart a local politician, with little overseas experience. That’s why Chen was willing to cater to public opinion and risk moving toward independence.

Tsai, on the other hand, is a scholar. Like Ma Ying-jeou, she earned advanced degrees overseas. Tsai understands democracy, and knows the extent to which democracy can embolden those who are elected. One might compare the reactions of the two leaders after their respective victories: While Chen was exuberant, Tsai issued her first “order” to the party right after her victory – be humble. As an advanced student of Lee Teng-hui and one of the authors of the “two-state theory,” Tsai is well aware that she has to be humble not only in front of the voters, but also the United States and mainland China. Without being humble and making concessions, Taiwan could face not just the loss of its democracy, but its own demise.

During her short victory speech and the session with the international press, Tsai emphasized several times that she will continue the legacy of cross-strait relations left by the Nationalist Party (KMT), and will not provoke Beijing or cause an incident. She is committed to maintaining the status quo. These assurances were indirectly addressed to U.S. representatives in Taiwan, but were also intended for anxious leaders in Beijing.

If Taiwan is unwilling to either hold hands with mainland China or declare independence, it seems the only option now is to maintain the status quo, with no unification in sight. But is this really the case? The two scenarios I mentioned above were discussed at great length by readers in their comments, but there is a third possible path to unification: the political climate in Taiwan undergoes drastic changes, creating a rift between the two factions. One faction leans overwhelmingly toward Beijing, and regains control of Taiwan with the military support of mainland China, bringing about unification.

This is the idea that got stuck in my head after I exchanged views with 15 observers from both the “deep green” (pro-independence) and “deep blue” (pro-unification) camps during a visit to Taiwan. For the first time, I witnessed the strong presence of factionalism within Taiwanese society. The opposition is so intense that neither faction now considers Beijing as their opponent or the largest threat; they see each other as sworn enemies.

A deep-green pundit told me, for example, that the KMT is a foreign power and has oppressed and enslaved the Taiwanese people for decades. After the regime change, they should never be allowed to rule Taiwan again. Another one said, “It’s time they get a taste of humiliation under other people’s rule, with no power and authority.”

Meanwhile, a “deep-blue” pundit observed that if the KMT does not take power again, Taiwan will be trapped in the swamp of the pro-independence faction, and mainland China’s only option will be to use force. There was a lot of anger in his voice, and I was a bit scared. At that moment, I was reminded of the Taiwanese artist Huang An, who ruthlessly “reported” teenage singer Chou Tzu-yu for pro-independence sentiments. The vehemence with which he went about attacking his opponents was something that I had only seen in the class struggles during the Cultural Revolution.

Will Tsai Ing-wen make sure, after assuming office, that the KMT will never rule Taiwan again? Will she capitalize on the majority of voters who are born in Taiwan and the rich political resources that have come into the possession of the Democratic Progressive Party to gradually drive the Nationalist Party and the deep-blue camp toward a cliff?

If thus cornered, will those known in Taiwan as the “mainlanders” succumb to their fate? Will they strive to maintain their position as a minority under the domination of the majority, with their rights guaranteed but without the capacity to ever become the ruling party? Or will they rise in rebellion and regain control over Taiwan from the pro-independence faction with military support from Beijing? The last scenario seems extreme, but the behaviors of both the “deep-green” and “deep-blue” camps are casting some serious doubt on democracy in Taiwan. Many of them have no trust in democracy and are only interested in power struggles.

Tsai will likely have eight years in office. Her mandate more or less coincides with that of her counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing. As for the leaders in Beijing, there are now only two great causes left for them to achieve – the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people through the peaceful rise of China, and the unification of China. Unification is the less strenuous of the two, and can be used to win the hearts of the people and contribute to China’s peaceful rise. If someone like me can see the logic of this, how can those in power, or Tsai for that matter, not be aware of it?

From Beijing’s point of view, unification by the convergence of political institutions is more difficult and unlikely within the foreseeable future. Resorting to military force, though quick, will leave Taiwan a mess which might later turn into a nightmare for Beijing. Compared to these two, using the “Taiwanese people” and other proxies in Taiwan to bring about unification is less costly and easier to execute.

This is why every time the DPP takes power, Beijing immediately shifts its policy to boost exchanges and communications with the Taiwanese people. The “Taiwanese people” Beijing is investing its hopes in are obviously not farmers on Ali Mountain, but those Taiwanese who have a soft spot for Beijing and the mainland. They do not necessarily have to be large in number. If Taiwan moves towards independence, this pro-unification force could be co-opted into action and lead the way, helping Beijing achieve the great cause of national unification.

After assuming office, Tsai needs to maintain the status quo and cooperate with Beijing to maintain peace, and not engage in provocation and cause trouble for the United States. If she strives to become a leader for “all people” in Taiwan, she should join hands with the various forces outside the realm of the DPP, rather than being satisfied with the role of a pro-independence president. Only in this way will Taiwanese society achieve reconciliation and harmony, rescue its democracy from factionalism, and become a champion of democracy for mainland China, Chinese-speaking communities, and the whole world.

The piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. You can view the original here